Time series of ocean properties provide a measure of global ice volume and monitor key features of the wind-driven and density-driven circulations over the past 400,000 years. Cycles with periods near 23,000, 41,000, and 100,000 years dominate this climatic narrative. When the narrative is examined in a geographic array of time series, the phase of each climatic oscillation is seen to progress through the system in essentially the same geographic sequence in all three cycles. We argue that the 23,000- and 41,000-year cycles of glaciation are continuous, linear responses to orbitally driven changes in the Arctic radiation budget; and we use the phase progression in each climatic cycle to identify the main pathways along which the initial, local responses to radiation are propagated by the atmosphere and ocean. Early in this progression, deep waters of the Southern Ocean appear to act as a carbon trap. To stimulate new observations and modeling efforts, we offer a process model that gives a synoptic view of climate at the four end-member states needed to describe the system's evolution, and we propose a dynamic system model that explains the phase progression along causal pathways by specifying inertial constants in a chain of four subsystems.
“Solutions to problems involving systems of such complexity are not born full grown like Athena from the head of Zeus. Rather they evolve slowly, in stages, each of which requires a pause to examine data at great lengths in order to guarantee a sure footing and to properly choose the next step.”
—Victor P. Starr